WHAT MAKES JOURNALISTS GREAT?

If you read the obituary of Sir Harold Evans, who attained great fame as the Editor of the London Sunday Times and died on 23 September 2020, at the age of 92, you will find an answer to the question.

Harold Evans was the journalist par excellence. He’d always wanted to be a journalist, and when he left school at the young age of 16, he enrolled in a shorthand class where all the other students were girls! Ever a lad with a strong mind, he completed the course, undeterred by the teasing of friend and foe alike. 

His first job was on a tiny news paper, the Reporter, published at Ashton-under-Lyne. Among his assignments on the paper was being sent to cover a visit by General George Carpenter of the Salvation Army. 

“When the great man asked the assembled Salvationists whether they had been saved, I explained that I was from the press,” Evans recalled later. “But you can still be saved!” said the Salvation Army general. 

Evans did not reveal what he would have done, in his days as a great editor, with a story about a Bible-puncher. But he unashamedly became a “missionary” of sorts, himself, when he was appointed, in later life, to edit some of the greatest newspapers in the world. His career in journalism followed service in the British Air Force, during the 2nd World War, and a University course at Ddur4ham. 

His most celebrated campaign was one that sought to obtain compensation for the families of children born with deformed limbs, because their mothers had taken a drug called “Thalidomide” that was widely prescribed to pregnant women in the UK to cure them from “morning sickness”.

The drug was distributed by very wealthy drug firms which callously refused to accept responsibility for the children’s deformities. When Harold Evans committed The Sunday Times to fighting them on behalf of the distressed families, Evans met with very expensive lawsuits that were instituted against his paper for libel. Both his reputation and his career came under threat because the forces he fought against were so powerful.

He will be remembered for this famous exposé, about hundreds of T

“It was one of the most . “Twenty judges of the EurConvention.

After leaving

Evans fought the companies all the way to the House of Lords, and lost. He could not believe that British judges could shut their eyes at the plight of hundreds of children who were born without limbs, just because powerful drug companies had been negligent. 

The cases against the Sunday Times lasted for about a decade. But Evans continued the fight – he took the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This is what he wrote about what happened there:

“It was one of the most memorable days of my life when … I sat in Strasbourg on April 26, 1979, and listened to the conclusion of‘L’affaire Sunday Times’,” (Evans wrote). “Twenty judges of the European Court had deliberated. … Nine of them were against us, including the British judge, but eleven carried the court: ‘We find there has been a violation of Article 10 [of the European Convention of Human Rights].’

“This meant the House of Lords injunction had infringed our rights to free speech and that the law of contempt would have to be liberalised in Britain in the spirit of the Convention”, Evans added. 

An obituary in the London Guardian noted that following this victory,“Evans’s reputation was at its height. For a decade, he and the team of talented and aggressive journalists he led at the Sunday Times pulled off one triumph after another.”

There was the revelation of Kim Philby as the highest-placed Soviet spy in the history of British intelligence; the showing-up as a fraudster of the MP and publisher Robert Maxwell; and the publication, in defiance of the secrecy laws of the British public service, of Richard Crossman’s diaries. Evans also became the first British editor to ignore a “D”-Notice that prevented the media from following certain stories allegedly related to “national security”. 

Evans set up an “Insight” team, made up of very courageous journalists selected from the paper’s news staff, whose job was to spend more time than usual, assiduously digging up stories of skulduggery throughout the world.

I had the honour of being commissioned to do two stories for the Insight team – one dealing with a Liberian-registered Portuguese oil tanker whose captain sold the oil the boat was carrying, and then deliberately scuppered the boat in West African waters. How I managed to get to Liberia and get the whole story out of the lawyer appointed to defend the Portuguese captain, will be told at the appropriate time.

I also covered another good story for the paper from Liberia – the Samuel Doe military coup of 1981.

Another story The Sunday Times sent me to do was in Lome, where I was asked to investigate the crashing, at Lome airport, of an aircraft that was carrying a secret cache of arms and – a large amount of currency. The Togolese authorities had hushed the matter up – for obvious reasons! So it was perhaps the most dangerous story I ever covered. For next thing I knew, the Togolese had stationed agents at the Aflao border to arrest me and charge me with espionage (!) when I was leaving Togo! When I got wind of this, I left Lome and got to Accra – by other means!

Certainly, the courage and intellectual honesty of Harold Evans would be difficult to find in any other editors of the 20th century – and that includes the Washington Post editors who blew up Nixon’s presidency. For the people whose caused were taken up by Evans and his staff were mostly, the helpless and the cheated. 

These included Timothy Evans, a man convicted and hanged in England in 1950, for a murder he did not commit. After Harold Evans and the Sunday Times took up what they considered his wrongful conviction, Timothy Evans was granted a posthumous pardon. His case was one of the factors that persuaded the British Parliament to abolish the death penalty. 

No wonder Harold Evans was given a knighthood by the Queen. To him, though, the greatest honour must have been the vote for him, by readers of the UK Press Gazette, that accorded the accolade of “The Greatest Editor That Ever Was.”

By CAMERON DUODU

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